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updated: 1/17/2013 6:15 AM

'Rainbows' founder spent 30 years helping kids heal

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  • Suzy Yehl Marta, left, discusses a project with Laurie Olbrisch.

    Suzy Yehl Marta, left, discusses a project with Laurie Olbrisch.

  • Suzy Yehl Marta

    Suzy Yehl Marta

  • Suzy Yehl Marta with some of the Rainbows kids.

    Suzy Yehl Marta with some of the Rainbows kids.

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent

The founder of Rainbows for All Children, whose mission 30 years ago to help children struggling with divorce or the death of a parent grew into a worldwide movement, has died.

Suzy Yehl Marta passed away on Sunday after battling pancreatic cancer. The Palatine resident was 67.

"Suzy's life work was helping families as they faced some of their toughest challenges, such as death of a parent, divorce or deployment," said David Christian II, Rainbows' governing board chair. "Rainbows will continue its mission to help and heal more children who are grieving."

Marta came to form the organization, now based in Itasca, when she was going through a divorce, and she noticed her sons were hurting as much as she was.

Her youngest son, Tim, remembers his mother attending a support group for divorced Catholics, and the positive effect it had on her.

"Coming back from that weekend, I saw she had a little more in her step than I had seen in a long while," Tim Yehl says.

But when she went searching for a similar support group or retreat for her children, she found nothing was offered. Empowered by her own experience, Marta took it upon herself to form a retreat program for children.

"She wrote the curriculum in the den of our Des Plaines house and cut and pasted the first workbook mock-ups on our dining room table," her son says.

Starting in 1983, Marta pulled in other parent volunteers and launched weekend retreats for grieving youths through her local church and the Chicago Archdiocese. In the first three years, they drew more than 800 children.

Marta named the program, Rainbows, to reflect the promise of life after one comes through the storm of hurt and grief, says Laurie Olbrisch, Rainbows' chief operating officer and a colleague of Marta's for all 30 years.

"She knew that the children of loss were grieving and she wanted to educate society on ways to reach out and help them," Olbrisch said. "Her enthusiasm touched everyone she met and she encouraged thousands to reach out in their own communities to heal children who were hurting."

Nearly 30 years since those weekend retreats, Rainbows now is in all 50 states and 18 countries. All told, Rainbows has helped more than 2.7 million children grieve and grow after loss, organization officials say.

There also is Silver Linings, a crisis response program designed by Marta and Rainbows staff members for teachers and youth group leaders following community or large-scale disasters.

More than 600 editions of the program were distributed nationwide following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and thousands after Hurricane Katrina. They also were translated, Olbrisch adds, to assist the survivors of the tsunami in Japan.

Besides her son, Marta is survived by her husband, Martin, and children Michael Yehl, Thomas (Donna) Yehl, Timothy (Katherine) Yehl, Peter (Nihal) Marta, David Marta and Kathryn Marta; as well as eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be held from 3-9 p.m. Thursday at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie, before a 10 a.m. Mass on Friday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, 1775 Grove St. in Glenview.

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